Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary
Directed by Jim Brown
Pop Twist / MVD Visual
78 minutes, 2014 / 2016

Most people I know who arrived at the punk movement came from either a rock (MC5, Stooges, KISS) or artistic (Velvet Underground) music background. For me it was different than most, as I approached from a folkie background (influenced in large part by my cousin Marc when I stayed Summer weeks with my Aunt Elsie and Uncle Al; also the summer camp I attended in the 1960s was an anti-war folk bastion), from the harsher Phil Ochs to the mellower Peter, Paul and Mary. If you think about it – and I’m not the only one who made this observation, though I came to it on my own – punk is ‘60s folk that is just “faster and louder,” as the Dictators might have put it. They are both guitar-based, minimalist, and often had a sharp, politically honed-edge. For example, take Stiff Little Fingers’ “I Don’t Like You” and compare it to Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street.” Or Towns van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Round to Die” and the Heartbreakers’ (or Ramones’) “Chinese Rocks.”

That being said, I still retain my folkie roots, as do a lot of punkers; ever notice how many hardcore singers have come out with singer-songwriter-style solo efforts? I would argue that Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is a great folk tune.

I’ve never seen Peter, Paul and Mary (PPM) perform live. However, I did see Mary Travers twice at the Bottom Line in a very short time span in the early ‘70s when she was promoting her solo LPs, and a private performance by Peter Yarrow at/for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the late-1990s.

This documentary has been airing on PBS during fundraising periods since it was released, and is a huge draw. I kept missing most of it (due to its lengthy interruptions thanks to the GW Bush administration’s financial raping of the NEA funding, which the present “administration” promises to annihilate…but I sadly digress…), so as  I’ve seen bits of it here and there, I was so happy to be able to finally see it in its entirely.

Just as Judy Collins was a major contributing factor for the success of Leonard Cohen (d. 2016) by covering his music such as “Suzanne” before he was famous, PPM did the same for Dylan by doing his “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’,” among others of Bobby’s works.

The documentary makes quick work of their origins, which happened thanks in large part to their future manager, Albert Grossman (d. 1986), matching them up in the early Greenwich Village folk scene. But Yarrow correctly comments that when they all got together, it was not only a unification of harmony, but each voice stands out on its own personality (as I would posit was equally true of the Mamas and the Papas). This is evidenced in a clip of them performing an incredibly rousing “If I Had My Way,” shortly after the release of their eponymous first album, which went to Number 1 on the folk charts, and hovered around the Top-Ten for the following three years.

After their first three albums, there came a shift in the group that was a cognitive dissonance, or more accurately an awakening of consciousness. Much like Dylan’s pivot at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went electric, for PPM it was performing at the Civil Rights March on Washington where they performed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In present culture, they may have been seen as white interlopers on a black movement, but they were accepted then as the march needed to be an inclusive one at that point in time, which changed their direction to social activism, affecting every aspect of the group. Sure, some of it was there already, as it was throughout the folk scene, but it went from part of their sound to the focus (or locus) of it.

This is an unusual documentary in its approach to the subject(s). First of all, with the exception of some background on Mary pre-PPM, there isn’t much about their backstory, or again, even much attention on their formation, for two reasons: first of all, it’s what they accomplished that’s more important than how they first laid their eyes on each other. Yarrows succinct definition of their earliest period in an interview from that time (to which I referred earlier) is all that’s really needed to be said. Also, due to time constraints, this film would either have to sacrifice a bit of story or the music, and I’m grateful they picked to include the music instead.

This brings me to the next point, which is the music, of course. What we get to see are not merely snippets, but rather either most of or all of the songs presented. Occasionally there would be some talking over the instrumental parts, but all the dialog is by the participants, not a narrator. Even though Mary died in 2009, there is a large body of interviews with her on which to draw, so she is well represented. The part of this film that shows her musical memorial is very touching, and one of the guest speakers, Whoopi Goldberg gives a nice and accurate nod to the way she sang, and embodied each lyric.

Most of those interviewed, other than the trio in focus, are the wives (one an ex-), adult kids, and some people who have worked with them, including managers. Even Gloria Steinem makes some pointed notes about how important Mary was as a role model to the folk scene, and even writ large.

The extras are captioning, and five full songs taken from various times in their career.

Not discussed in the film, I have always felt that Peter was the righteous side (he created an anti-bullying campaign this is now worldwide), Paul was the spiritual one (he and his wife travel and sing Christian devotional songs), and Mary was the heart, being the main focus of the group (which is mentioned) because of her sincerity to what she was doing.
My only regret is that the filmmakers didn’t include one of their best later tunes, “Light One Candle” (which happily can be found on YouTube), and if that’s the only negative that crosses my mind, well, that speaks volumes on how I found this to be an excellent documentary, with a glorious mix of interviews, history, and music.

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